For those who knew her, the late Commonwealth veteran Patsy Robertson played an active role in the transition of the organisation from a white men’s network and relic of empire into a modern values-based organisation. So it was no surprise that the first memorial lecture named after her focused on today’s challenges facing the Commonwealth in a post-pandemic world.
The virtual lecture, organised by the Commonwealth Association, the network of former Commonwealth Secretariat staffers, officials and stalwarts, took place on 22 July. The lecturer was lawyer, human rights advocate and current director-general of the Commonwealth Foundation, Dr Anne Gallagher.
“What kind of Commonwealth would Patsy Robertson want?” Dr Gallagher asked her audience, outlining memories of Patsy as a Commonwealth insider and veteran but still a constant challenger of the direction of the organisation.
Jamaican-born Patsy Robertson died in August 2020 after a career as a journalist and then as a long-serving official at the Commonwealth Secretariat and later at the United Nations. When former colleagues and Commonwealth Secretaries-General paid tribute to her in November 2020, they reflected on her role in helping the Commonwealth achieve global momentum to bring down South Africa’s apartheid system and in helping to forge today’s modern 54-member organisation. As Dr Gallagher pointed out, the Commonwealth of 2021 today is not just another club but a group of people with “an equal voice”.
Dr Gallagher credited then Secretary General Shridath Ramphal and Patsy Robertson with the work of the Commonwealth’s finest hour in helping to create what Dr Gallagher called a “web of subtle defiance” to steer the Commonwealth group of nations into galvanising the global community against apartheid.
“Calling out” governments
Dr Gallagher took the example of the passion and conviction of those times as a template for action by today’s Commonwealth in tackling issues in a Covid pandemic world. She said that the pandemic had become a cover for the blocking of the free flow of information. With one-third of Commonwealth countries currently sitting at the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index, Dr Gallagher said that freedom of expression is vital as the people of the Commonwealth needed to understand what was going on in their societies. On journalists’ detention and prosecutions and on the increasing attacks on media freedom, she said that some Commonwealth states were “failing spectacularly” on press freedom. She said that new media had also complicated this situation and that the protection of journalists should be a key role. “If the Commonwealth cannot step up … if it cannot, as an organisation, demonstrate commitment to these basic values, then the credibility of the Commonwealth as a values-based organisation is seriously at risk,” she said, suggesting that the Commonwealth had a role in “calling out” governments.
Dr Gallagher pointed to the Commonwealth Charter, stating that the organisation should never underestimate the power of this document. She said that the Charter, signed in 2013, provided a “roadmap” for the Commonwealth as a measure and reference point for development. She added that member states must be made to work to these stated Commonwealth values.
Dr Gallagher said that the Commonwealth ideal of solidarity had been tested in recent times. Mentioning the number of countries at the bottom of the global vaccination table, she said that small states had seen no benefit from being in the Commonwealth in terms of help to access Covid vaccines. “We must do much better than this,” she said, urging the Commonwealth to get to the front of the movement for equitable access to vaccines. Of the Commonwealth’s role, she said: “It is time to show the world what solidarity looks like”.
During the Q&A session, Dr Gallagher said that talk about commitment to small and vulnerable member states needed to be measured in terms of actions, not words. On vaccine inequality, she said that she still could not understand why Commonwealth member states had not come together to share out the surplus of vaccines in some member states with small and vulnerable members. She said that it had not even managed to set the bar low and make sure that front-line health workers at least could be vaccinated in such states. “If we’re failing at this hurdle, I really worry about …. the Commonwealth depth of treatment …. to the smaller and most vulnerable member states. Much more can be done”, she said.
Dr Gallagher praised the vision of the Eminent Persons Group (EPG)’s 2011 report on potential reform within the Commonwealth. She said that, on the tenth anniversary of this report A Commonwealth of the People: Time for Urgent Reform, the recommendations were still relevant. Dr Gallagher added that, without passion and vision, complacency could pose “the most serious threat” to the Commonwealth.
During the Q&A session, Dr Gallagher said that the Commonwealth had experienced “an uneven record” over the last decade, adding that the pressure of civil society needed to be unrelenting. She pointed to the unique position of the Commonwealth with a civil society arm in the form of the Foundation. She suggested that civil society should be represented at all Commonwealth meetings and a wider part of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings beyond the Peoples Forum.
Answering a question on the Commonwealth input into the upcoming global climate change COP26 meeting, Dr Gallagher said that the pandemic was forcing the world to look at basic principles such as climate change. She said that the Commonwealth’s USP of ensuring small states could be heard on the bigger stage meant that if the organisation did not “elevate those voices” it could become irrelevant in the future.
In discussion with the Commonwealth Association’s Stuart Mole on Covid’s impact on the Commonwealth’s “lifeblood” ability to come together, Dr Gallagher said that the Commonwealth had to “grab these lessons and run with them”. She said that the Foundation had discovered “wider engagement than ever” through the virtual meetings held during Covid lockdown periods. She said that the People’s Forum (usually held ahead of the CHOGM and organised by the Foundation) would “never again” be a group of less than a hundred people chatting together in a room.
Throughout her lecture and in answering questions, Anne Gallagher spoke of the example of Patsy Robertson in fighting for a Commonwealth which was brave in support of its ideals and values, which shaped global policy, remained “unswerving” in its quest for justice, human rights, justice and the rule of law and which fought for its smallest states.
“It is in the hands of a generation that was not part of the passion and ideals of the early days, a generation that is still to be persuaded of the Commonwealth’s value as a force for good,” Dr Gallagher told her audience.
“We cannot live off past glories, we must reach out to our young people … we must bring them into the Commonwealth family. We must to work with them to create a Commonwealth that everyone is prepared to fight for.”
A reflection on the life of Patsy Robertson – Stuart Mole
Patsy Robertson – An appreciation – Richard Bourne